April 13, 2013

Why we still need feminism

Much of what I've read and heard about feminism recently has failed to actually define feminism in this postmodern culture. The majority of outspoken feminists right now are really good at articulating what feminism is not, but they rarely bother to give examples of what feminism looks like today. 

Though I've heard a lot of catchphrases used to describe issues plaguing women; terms like 'slut shaming', 'rape culture', and of course, good ol' 'misogyny', most opinion pieces seem more interested in slagging off Alan Jones and his ageing contemporaries than they do in actually tackling any real issues. 

And what's really missing from any contemporary feminist debate, is a clear definition of what modern feminism looks like, how it best functions in today's society, and what it is actually trying to achieve. Because I'll be honest with you, I am buggered if I can figure it out. 

The world has changed entirely since the 70's and early 80's when second wave feminists were fighting for equal rights and liberating women from the tyranny of domesticity. The problems facing women today are also very different, and in some corners of society, life for women is actually much worse. 

Granted we don't face the same hardships as women living in third world conditions, or under oppressive regimes, and these are very serious issues for feminism to address. But we don't need to look further than our own back yard to observe soaring rates of domestic abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault and poverty. 

And when we look more deeply at areas such as the division of labor in the home, equal rights and equal pay, slut shaming, single mother stigma, advertising and gender discrimination, it becomes apparent that we haven't moved very far on the road toward equality, despite the fact that everyone is acting as if these issues have all been resolved. 

And don't get me started on women reaching higher than men on the economic ladder, because sadly we have barely even made a crack in that glass ceiling. 

Granted we do have a female Prime Minister, and one who openly calls out misogyny, but when it comes to women's earning power, the porn industry is the only industry in which women are paid more than their male contemporaries. I'm guessing that's why they call it the money shot. 

Evidently the feminist cause still has a long way to go.  The problem is, the path ahead is no longer clear, or at least not as clear as it should be. 

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary feminism I think, is the internal conflict that has developed between the second- wave of feminism known as the women's liberation movement of the 1960's, and the third- wave, which emerged in the 1990's. 

Much like the fate of psychoanalysis, which split off into the Freudian/ Lacan camps, the split in feminist ideology has slowly been confusing everyone without a doctorate in gender studies, and quickly driving young women away from the cause. 

The women's lib movement fought hard for the changes that benefit women today, things like legal, political, economic and social reform; equal pay and equal career opportunity, education, women's right to autonomy over her reproductive rights, and to choose between career and motherhood as well as her right to do both. 

These changes were born out of big picture thinking; a vision of not only equality for women, but for a new paradigm in which women could reach high enough to smash through the ceiling and knock down the existing patriarchal structures on the way. The dream was that women would use their power for good instead of evil, presumably to build a more sustainable society.

Then in the 1990's, third- wave feminism emerged as a more inclusive umbrella, and has since been incorporating elements of queer theory, cyber-feminism, postmodernism, eco- feminism, anti-racism and women of colour consciousness, and individualist feminism. 

Third- wave feminism embraced change and diversity but it also sought to challenge traditional feminist ideas, such as the existing idea that all women in pornography and sex work are being exploited. 

The third-wave movement has often distanced itself from what could be classed as the perceived failure of second- wave feminism; a movement that has been criticized for taking only white, middle class perspectives into account, and for no longer being relevant in a contemporary capitalist culture. 

However, third-wave feminists are the first generation of women to benefit from the gains of the women's right movement without participating in any of those struggles. They see the presence of feminism as being assumed or innate; an intrinsic part of daily life as opposed to a separate cause or a movement. 

As well as the debate between second and third wave feminism, third-wave feminism also contains internal debates between difference feminists who believe 'that there are important differences between the sexes, and those who believe that there are no inherent differences between the sexes, and contend that gender roles are due to social conditioning'. 

These ongoing debates and their inherently blurred ideologies could be blamed for some of the apathy and confusion felt by young women today, who are often confused about what contemporary feminism looks like. 

Most young women take issues like equality and women's rights for granted, as though they were part of their DNA. However, young women are often less inclined to get caught up in the politics of feminist ideology, presumably because there is no longer a clear distinction of what that ideology represents.  

And even though a young woman may identify as a feminist, she may still be reluctant to assume the feminist label because of the label's overwhelmingly loaded and often impossibly contradictory connotations.   

The Oxford dictionary defines feminism as 'the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social and economic equality to men'. However, today's definition is much more complex than that. 

In the introduction of To Be Real, the Third Wave founder and leader Rebecca Walker writes:
Whether the young women who refuse the feminist label realize it or not, on some level they recognize that an ideal woman born of prevalent notions of how empowered women look, act, or think is simply another impossible contrivance of perfect womanhood, another scripted role to perform in the name of biology and virtue.[9] 

On social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, in Blogs, and on QandA last Monday night, young women are struggling to clarify the blurry feminist definition. 

Can you still like men and be a feminist? 

Can you shave your armpits and still be a feminist? 

Is it okay to like shopping and spending money and still be a feminist? 

Is it okay to dress provocatively and still be a feminist? 

Women of the younger generation have grown up in a capitalist western society, one where consumerism, social media, advertising, fashion, sex, plastic surgery, Internet porn, and body image have been prepackaged and sold to them as social norms.  

In an age where girls as young as five are reportedly experiencing body dysmorphia and girls as young as 7 are already on diets, there is no question that the odds are stacked against young girls in many ways. And regardless of where you stand on the debate about female autonomy, one cannot deny that young girls are being influenced, shaped and exploited by the capitalist machine.

In my opinion it is the responsibility of feminist writers of all ages and viewpoints to adapt to the world at large and address these issues so that feminism can become more, and not less, relevant. The traditional feminist model needs to lift itself out of the dark ages and make itself more compatible with today's young female generation. 

This can only begin by igniting a discussion with young girls and women. Only by listening to their experiences; their hopes and fears, opinions and reservations, can we truly hope to forge ahead as a strong, united front. 

The nature of oppression no longer wears the same face. While the problems besieging women in western cultures are no less sexist or oppressive than they were thirty of forty years ago, the rules of the game are far less obvious and we need to agree on what these rules are before we can hope to change the playing field. 

Perhaps the biggest downfall of the feminist movement was not that it could not predict the kind of world we would be living in today, but that it could not agree with the best way to keep up with those changes. 

I'm not suggesting that women ought to have circumvented capitalism, though if we had have been running the show, it's possible that the culture would be less fucked. But what I am saying is that women are still being oppressed in the western culture, just much more subtly than they ever have been before. 

It's true that one cannot see female oppression as blatantly in the west, as one might see oppression on a daily basis in places like Afghanistan, The Sudan or India.  Women living in western cultures appear to have much more autonomy than women living under an oppressive male dominated regime or religion. But just because we can no longer see the machinations of western oppression, doesn't mean oppression no longer exists. 

Oppression does exist and it has spread through the west like a terminal disease. It is on our streets and in our living rooms, on our billboards, in our institutions; workplaces and schools. It is in our social groups, our film industry, our news and social media. It is in football codes, our churches, our fashion industry, our sex industry and in our government. It is shaping and defining the lives of not only our young girls, but our young men as well, particularly during their formative years, when their attitudes toward girls and women develop. 

Capitalist oppression is slippery by nature because it is hides behind the shiny advertising campaigns of multi-billion dollar industries. It manipulates women into thinking that they are empowering themselves by adhering to social norms. 

Buying the right clothes and achieving a more desirable weight, hair style, breast shape, lip size and so on might make women feel better about themselves for a whole minute, but these are all social constructions, devoid of any real substance or meaning, and designed to lull women into a false sense of security, one where she feels a sense of desirability, freedom and control.  

Capitalism manufactures deficits that did not previously exist and then sells women pre- packaged solutions to these problems as though they were simply ordering lean cuisine. And as a result, it is much more difficult for women to pinpoint the ways in which they are being subjugated, many women don't even realise it at all.

On one hand, women might argue that dieting, waxing, and even going under the knife make them feel better about themselves; more confident and empowered. On the other hand one might argue that women are being manipulated into feeling badly about their bodies so that big corporations can sell them ready made solutions, and there is absolutely no freedom of empowerment in that.

The culture has changed dramatically for women since the women's lib movement emerged. Twenty years ago, collagen implants and botoxed lips were reserved for women in the porn industry, and older women in Hollywood. These days, women as young as 18 are going under the knife for unnecessary breast and vaginal surgeries. 

Young women are being pressured to conform to the unrealistic standards reinforced by the advertising and porn industries, industries predominately owned and run by men, selling an image that has been cultivated by men to be aesthetically pleasing to men. 

In so many ways feminism has failed to address not only the changing cultural landscape for women, but also where it stands in relation to those changes. Modern feminism has voiced an opinion on the oppression of Muslim women; women who are pressured to wear the hijab or burqa under patriarchal rule, but when it comes to the more subtle ways in which western women are pressured to adhere to unnatural standards of beauty, very little is said.   

Regardless of whether you think feminism means calling out misogyny on 3AW or fighting for women's rights in the third world, the feminist cause risks looking foolish and  redundant unless it starts to address the issues affecting women today. We might start by encouraging feminists to stop bickering amongst themselves and criticising one another for small-picture thinking, and the other ways in which they are failing to get it right.

Many feminist writers are more inclined to write opinion pieces that criticise aspects of modern day feminism. The problem with this, is that younger women, and women like myself, feel uncertain about voicing their own opinions because we are not entirely sure where exactly we are supposed to be standing.

I know I won't win any admirers for saying this, but it is often feminists who tend to undermine other feminists, and women who tend to undermine other women. For example, a large majority of the criticism aimed at the way women dress, tends to come from other women. Of course men are guilty of sexual harassment, but when it comes to the practice of slut shaming, so too are women. 

If a woman dresses provocatively, other women often assume she is trying to attract the attention of men and they might also assume that this is goes against what feminism has been fighting for, and that is in part, that women should be independent and not reliant on the approval of men. 

And yet in contrast, third-wave feminists might argue that wearing a short skirt is a woman's choice; her right to autonomy regarding her own body, and she should be free to wear whatever she likes. Both arguments can be seen to support a feminist viewpoint, and yet they are entirely in conflict with one another. There is any wonder that young women feel confused.

In terms of consumerism, women are free to shop till they drop, to spend their hard earned dollars on themselves, just as men are. After all, feminism fought hard for equal property rights; for women to earn and manage their own money.  

On the other hand, marketing companies are still largely run and owned by men, and it is predominantly men who are researching the ways in which women consume. If women are being manipulated into buying products they do not need, products that are gender coded, and products that repress women further into outdated gender roles, then arguably that isn't compatible with feminism. 

The role of this capitalist culture clearly has the power to shape young women in damaging ways. Working in the area of mental illness, I take this issue very seriously because I've seen the impact this broken capitalist culture is having on all of our society. 

These are conversations that we need to start having, if not yesterday, then today because this culture is churning out more aggressive and sexually violent men than it has ever done before.  

It's clear that we need to start finding ways to tackle the more immediate issues facing women today, issues such as the rape culture, domestic violence, and sexualised harassment and abuse. It's also true that these issues are far more important than whether Black Caviar was voted Sportswoman of the year, or Kyle Sandilands has made another tasteless, sexist joke. 

But I don't agree with the argument put forward by Helen Razer, that calling out sexism, either in the form of a joke, or women being compared to horses, is nothing more than 'short-lived feminist fury', which serves as a distraction from the real issues at hand. 

There is no reason why we cannot talk about all of the issues - both big and small and give each issue equal attention. One issue or approach does not cancel out the other. And in my opinion, there is no such thing as small scale sexism or low-level discrimination. Oppression is born out of an attitude; a product of faulty thinking, and even the most seemingly insignificant examples of misogyny contribute to the collective way of thinking; the systemic subjugation of women. 

We don't need to prioritise these issues according to a hierarchical scale, whereby John Laws and Kyle Sandilands are on the bottom, equal pay and equal employment opportunities are in the middle, and rape culture, domestic abuse and are at the top. 

We should be paying attention to all of the issues that impact women's lives, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Because by ignoring them, or playing them down, we are inadvertently normalising and okaying them in society. 

I am a huge fan of Helen Razer, but in the time it took her to write her last two articles, in which she criticises feminism for its small-target strategy, she could have used a big-target strategy to write two serious feminist articles. 

I'm not blaming Helen Razer for setting back the women's movement, I'd be way too scared to do that. But seriously, if a woman as ballsy and articulate as Razer is not prepared to get real about the suffering of women, then why should she get ticked off when other women don't do the same.  

It's one thing to have a vision of women climbing the corporate ladder and filling positions on boards, in government and the church, but while the staff photograph hanging in the lobby may look slightly more effeminate than it did 30 years ago, the model hasn't actually changed, and it won't change for as long as we continue to act like it already has.  

We need feminism because even in 2013, women are still not given equal pay or equal workplace opportunity. We need feminism because many people think that the oppression of women ended decades ago. We need feminism because one woman is raped every minute. We need feminism because young women shouldn't desire to be anorexic in order to be desirable. We need feminism because some men think its okay to objectify young girls. We need feminism because every woman will be sexually harassed at least once in her lifetime. We need feminism because many people still associate feminism with pessimism and negativity.  Unfortunately, we are all too busy hanging shit on one another to notice. 


Jessie said...

It was interesting hearing Mia Freedman trying to define feminism for the young women in the Q&A audience. She focused so wholly on ‘equality’. I know equality is a big part of the story, but I often feel pitching feminism as the belief that women should have the same ‘rights’ and ‘opportunities’ as men doesn’t say much to young girls. They think they already have that kind of equality. It seems a no-brainer. And truthfully, many of the inequalities involved in being a woman didn’t become clear to me until I was a mother. Before that I kinda believed I was living in a meritocracy. It was hard to understand any of it in a school setting where generally girls were far out performing boys.

Sometimes I wonder if there would be more appeal in talking to young women about the ways in which women don’t want to be ‘equal’ to men?

What about introducing feminism as a kind of imagining of what women’s lives could be like if we were free to define our own values, order our own priorities and decide our own fate. You know?

Then we could focus on those issues that are so relevant to the next generation: how consumer culture undermines self-sufficiency and empowerment, how the pornification of culture harms young women (and men), how motherhood often leaves women in the dust.

I don’t know. Is it just me? Equality seems a hollow kind of word in the world we inhabit.

Misha Sim said...

Jessie, that is so true and I liked the way Germain Greer responded to Mia Freedman on that one. Thanks for the comment.